I was in the grocery store last night buying as much as I could in preparation for the long closures of almost all businesses over the holiday season. As I have learned, the “holiday season” varies from country to country. For instance, in the U.S., many retail shops close early on the Eve of Christmas and for the entirety of Christmas day. But come December 26th, commerce is back on in full swing.
In Italy, businesses (and I mean ALL businesses: gyms; retail stores; grocery stores; pharmacies; gas stations; nunneries… no wait, not nunneries) start to close their doors the day before, the day before Christmas and then reopen promptly on December 29th… only to close again on December 30th in preparation for the celebration of the new year.
But, I digress.
One might think the grocery store is simple enough to manage in any country. And, before I got here, I would have agreed with you. But then one of the cashiers asks you questions that you did not learn in Italian class and you cannot figure out by context. Questions like, "Do you have a frequent shopper card?" or "How many bags would you like?" How many bags do I want? Umm, I dunno. How about as many as I need to fit all of my groceries? I’m not really the expert in this area.
Cashiers get to sit in comfy desk chairs at their registers by the way, AND they make you pack your own stuff.
Seriously, who learns this stuff before they get here? No one, right? No one learns this stuff ahead of time. Surely, I cannot be the only one who did not?
I learn a lot by hanging back and watching what others do. The produce section of Italian supermarkets is much like those in the U.S. except they have more variety, you have to wear plastic gloves to pick up the fruit and veggies, and you need to weigh and print a price tag for your items before you get into the checkout line. A lot of U.S. markets are moving to the, “You weigh, you tag system,” so buying fruit seemed simple enough.
I also learned recently (after 5 minutes of walking back and forth from the stand where I selected my artichokes, to the scale where I could not find the weight code for the artichokes) that if the fruit or vegetable did not have a “weight code number” on the sign above you just paid the flat price that was associated with that item. Apparently, someone finally noticed me walking back and forth like a wind-up doll stuck between two barriers and taught me how the system worked.
Last evening, when I could not find the weight code for a pineapple and just saw the flat price, I didn’t even hesitate. I plopped that pineapple in my cart, weighed my other fruit, and was on my way.
When I got to the checkout line, the cashier asked me in Italian if I had a frequent shopper card. Yep! Got that one covered; here’s the card. How many bags do I need? Zero thank you. I brought my backpack and my portable rolly cart. Then she asked me “Italian word, Italian word, Italian word, pineapple?”
Umm, what? I never heard that one before. I told her in Italian I didn’t understand. She said back to me, “Italian word repeated, Italian word repeated, Italian word repeated louder, pineapple?”
Nope, still didn’t understand what you said even though you were kind enough to repeat the exact same sentence, but louder this time.
I tried to explain that the pineapple didn’t have a weight price code so I didn’t weigh it, but I just didn’t have those words in Italian, so I said it in English.
The cashier was apparently not impressed and had some problems hiding her frustration as she said out loud (but not while actually looking at me) something that did not have a very pleasant tone to it. In all honesty, the only word I understood was, “Inglese” (English).
At this point, I had already apologized in Italian and gave her the universal hand symbol for just forget about the pineapple. But the cashier could not be consoled. She kept repeating herself in Italian as if by some miracle I would learn the language on the spot in the middle of the checkout line. I just stood there not knowing what to try next while the cashier continued to go on and on speaking to no one in particular.
So, I did what any red-blooded American would do; I mumbled under my breath that she could bite me. Yep, never underestimate the power of a well placed, albeit mumbled, bite me!
Actually, I have also found that singing quietly out loud (but to myself), “I don't underSTAND you” and “Ever heard of a single file line (pronounced la-hein),” are also quite helpful with maintaining one’s personal sanity.
I’m not sure what I finally said or did that registered with her, but she eventually understood that we could just put the pineapple aside and not worry about it at this time.
Okay then, international crisis averted! Time for me to pack my own groceries!